In July last year, Telugu film critic and Dalit and social activist Mahesh Kathi got into a controversy when during a TV debate, he spoke about why he did not hold Lord Ram in high esteem. His remarks provoked angry reactions from several right-wingers and orthodox Hindus, forcing the Telangana police to step in. Mahesh Kathi was externed from Hyderabad for a period of six months as was Swami Paripurnananda.
In the context of how BJP MPs in the Lok Sabha raised cries of Jai Shri Ram when Asaduddin Owaisi was walking towards the well of the House to take his oath and the Hyderabad MP saying Jai Bheem, Mahesh Kathi sees the emergence of Jai Bheem as a counter to Jai Shri Ram as a positive sign for India. He spoke to T S Sudhir of Filter Kaapi on what this will mean for the politics in the next five years of NDA rule.
Sudhir : In the Lok Sabha, we saw Hyderabad MP Asaduddin Owaisi being greeted with Jai Shri Ram and Vande Mataram. He on his part, ended his oath with Jai Bheem and Jai Meem. Do you see Jai Shri Ram and Jai Bheem defining Indian politics and polity over the next five years?
Mahesh : That is the hope. BR Ambedkar symbolises the Constitution of India and all that is written in it whereas Jai Shri Ram stands for Hindutva ideology, Manuwadi and Brahminical culture and strengthens feudal and patriarchal norms. It is against Constitutional morality. It stands for majoritarianism which says if we are in a majority, this country is ours. Ambedkar on the other hand, said this is everyone’s country. The two ideologies and slogans are different from the other and in conflict.
Sudhir : It reminds one of the 1990s when Mandal and Kamandal occupied the centrestage of Indian politics. Are we likely to see a 21st century version of the religion vs caste card playing out?
Mahesh : Sure. Mandal spoke against underrepresentation and for equal opportunities and was heavily borrowed from the Constitution of India. It spoke about the suppression of BCs who even though not untouchables, were marginalised. Today people are being targeted and in some cases, even killed for their food habits.
But the big change is that the BCs are getting integrated into the Hindutva ideology for two reasons. One, they have never suffered untouchability and two, they are neo-rich and aspirational. Say, backward castes like the Gowdas and the Yadavas in Telangana. They find it easier and better to integrate themselves with the upper castes instead of the SCs.
Sudhir : Similar to what is seen in Tamil Nadu where Vanniyars and Gounders are politically and socially powerful BCs.
Mahesh : Even in the north, where the BCs now support the BJP.
Sudhir : Talking of Jai Shri Ram, you have Mamata Banerjee disapproving of it in Bengal. Isn’t that the other extreme given how Jai Shri Ram is definitely a part of the larger Hindu culture. It cannot be seen only as an expression of Hindutva ideology.
Mahesh : Two perspectives here. I agree Jai Ram Ji ki and Jai Shri Ram are used as a greeting in the north. But when Jai Shri Ram becomes a political slogan, then it is a problem. It is used to intimidate which is why you now have Jai Bheem as a counter slogan by the suppressed.
Two, the Hindu vote is not a monolith. Each state has its own dynamics. In Bengal, Kali is their Goddess and she is not a mainstream Hindu Goddess but has a Tantrik side to her. Bengal in that sense has a different ethos and their belief in Hinduism is different from say that in Gujarat or Bihar.
Sudhir : Where does this leave the Congress? It has lost the orthodox Hindu vote and other players are looking to take away the marginalised and minorities vote from it. And the more it opposes the Jai Shri Ram narrative, it loses more of the Hindu vote.
Mahesh : The Congress has made a strategic mistake while focusing on Hindutva. It needs to unite liberal Hindus, stand for their rights and I believe the liberal Hindus are in a majority. But it has failed to make that argument and integrate the liberal Hindus.